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How to Practice Empathy at the Workplace – Learning to Understand and Share Feelings

Empathy is the key to nurturing an open culture of knowledge sharing. By definition, empathy means understanding and sharing your feelings and those of others. It may sound simple enough, but developing good practices requires daily work.

Empathy is the key to nurturing an open culture of knowledge sharing. By definition, empathy means understanding and sharing your feelings and those of others. It may sound simple enough, but developing good practices requires daily work.

Empathy is not a default, it has to be chosen. It’s also a skill set that’s essential for healthy communication and social connections. A common saying at Qvik and in our industry is that “most of our problems are related to communication”. It should thus be a given that empathy is considered a vital art.

We recently wrote about how empathy plays an important role in knowledge sharing. The primitive aspects of our brains serve us poorly in the struggle with our daily challenges. Fears of vulnerability and shame in potentially unsafe environments force us to bunker up and keep information to ourselves. Mutual empathy is the key to opening those locks.

There are many practical methods of encouraging empathetic behavior and ways of thinking. Here are some ways to help you embrace empathy in your every-day communication.

Grasp the Basics of Empathy

Be humble. Accept your own mistakes and lack of knowledge. If you’ve made an error or misinstructed someone, acknowledge it, apologize if necessary, and carry on while fixing any harm done. 

If you don’t know something, ask. These acts of humility signal that it’s okay to be wrong or unsure, a necessary component of learning, and that you empathize with taking responsibility. Everyone makes mistakes. It’s not personal.

Actions have traits like brave or stupid, but people intrinsically don’t. Assume that people work in everyone’s best interest, and it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy in a culture where needs are openly communicated. Avoid labeling people as good or bad community members. Highlight their specific actions and what was positive about those actions. Express gratitude.

Remember that no one is perfect, yourself included.

Hit It with Nonviolent Communication

The philosophy of nonviolent communication developed by the psychologist Marshall Rosenberg, PhD, is a powerful mindset for supporting empathetic communication and mutual understanding. It’s about taking one’s underlying emotions and those of others into account with a non-threatening but direct approach.

Nonviolent communication focuses on expressing needs clearly and without judgment, and consists of four core elements: 

  1. Observation
  2. Feelings
  3. Needs
  4. Request

For example, a parent disgruntled with their pre-teen child’s persistent behavior of leaving laundry all over the living room might demand: “Please pick up your dirty socks from the living room floor”. But something along the lines of : “I’ve often noticed dirty laundry lying around in the living room lately, and it stresses me out. I’m trying to keep our household nice and clean to live in so we can all enjoy a nice home, but I can’t do it alone. Could you go pick up your clothes, please, and put them straight into the laundry basket in the future?” may work better, especially when delivered in a calm and empathetic tone. If they immediately act on your request, expressing gratitude will likely strengthen the familial relationship, to boot.

The key is to express underlying needs through requests instead of demands, and by giving someone else an opportunity to do good instead of judging them for something they’ve done.

Learn to Be Better at Mentoring

Everyone is a mentor, and mentorship doesn’t end at the workplace. We often need to share our knowledge with others in the many roles we play in our lives, but let’s face it – mentoring is hard.

Being a good mentor without being unintentionally judgmental or condescending can be a challenge. Here are a few tips from writer and developer Carolyn Stransky for smoothing out the edges and making knowledge sharing a breeze.


“I can see why you thought this way, but have you considered…”

Make sure to validate the actions of the mentee so that they feel secure. Avoid berating and judging them for mistakes. After all, they were most likely acting according to everyone’s best interest with the knowledge they possessed. This way, they’ll feel okay about coming to you for advice in the future as well.


“I remember struggling with it before as well…”

Bridging the gap by relating to the emotions and actions of the mentee may disarm any pre-emptive defenses they might have in place due to insecurity. By showing that you are no different when acting as a mentor and that you truly understand their issue signals good intentions.


“In this case, doing that might result in… because…”

When faced with a choice, help the mentee understand the pros and cons of each option. Help them understand the implications. Be firm if necessary, but make sure you explain in detail why the choice you request is the right one.

Avoid Condescension

NOT: “It’s actually quite simple, let me show you…”

Poorly chosen words may harm the exchange regardless of intent. It’s good practice to avoid words such as easy, simple or straightforward. The task at hand may be simple for you, but we all come from different backgrounds, and the solution might not be as apparent to the other person. Implying that the task should be easy puts pressure on the mentee, as it signals that they should already have command of the subject, which might lead them to avoid asking questions crucial for learning. Let everyone judge difficulty for themselves.

Serve The Hamburger Model of Constructive Criticism

We sometimes need to give feedback on technical rather than behavioral issues. Of course, it could be argued that poor judgment in, e.g. code or design is a result of undeveloped practices.

The hamburger model of constructive criticism is a powerful and easy method of giving good feedback that offers an opportunity for growth without being judgmental. It consists of three parts:

  1. Highlight what’s good or well done
  2. Give constructive criticism on what could be done better
  3. Highlight something good or well done again

For example, a code review might go something like this:

“Nice naming with the style definitions! However, the login button analytics should be handled in the same way as all analytics are. Could you change that? Otherwise, neat code that’s easy to read. ”

The Hamburger Model, also known as the Sandwich Method, is quite well known and has received its share of critique. But even at the risk of seeming phony, the approach should help disarm the recipient’s reflexive defenses and validate their work without sacrificing efficiency.

Remember that if we only give constructive criticism, people only know what they’re doing wrong, not what they’re doing right.

Try the SCARF Model

Dr. David Rock’s SCARF model identifies five domains of social experience in which people can feel threatened by others and gives you practical tools for non-threatening communication. The SCARF domains are:

  1. Status — relative importance to others.
  2. Certainty — the ability to predict the future.
  3. Autonomy — the sense of control over events.
  4. Relatedness — the feeling of safety with others.
  5. Fairness — the perceived fairness of the exchange.

Examining a person’s needs from these five perspectives and acting non-threateningly in these domains encourages the recipient to be open. The mode is especially good for slow communication when we have time to think on our delivery. With practice, one can use the model in daily speech, too.

Further reading:

Leadership and Self-Deception by the Arbinger Institute
Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg
The Power of Vulnerability by Brené Brown

In the image you can see our designer Lauri Makkonen all dressed up for Qvik’s Klaskiainen competition. Photo credit goes to our marketing gorilla Niko Hälvä.